Why silence is golden: the importance of choosing the right caregiver, part 1

“Painting and photographs portray mothers with calm faces holding babies and looking aeons beyond the slightest shadow of self-doubt. Many people find it very hard to tolerate a mother who is feeling uncertain. They perceive her as a person who has lost control, who cannot cope and who needs help. People around her step in quickly, as if filling a vacuum, to supply the ‘missing’ certainty. Some make suggestions; others give orders. This can be disheartening for a mother. It is hard to feel so uncertain. It is even harder if she thinks that other people have lost confidence in her. Instead of seeing her uncertainty as necessary, she disparages it as unmotherly. It seems like a sign of her incompetence, demonstrating that she has failed to become a good mother from the very outset.” ~ Naomi Stadlen, What Mothers Do: Especially When It Looks Like Nothing

Silence may be golden, but as humans, we tend to find silence awkward. As soon as there is silence in a conversation or around the dinner table, we try to fill it.

This is counter productive when we want to support new moms who are finding their own way in motherhood. Our friends, family, in-laws, caregivers such as physicians, nurses, doulas, may all want to rush in and tell a new mom what she should be doing or how she should be doing it. “Why don’t you bathe the baby this way?” “Does the baby really need to breastfeed again? He just nursed!” “This is how we did it when you were a baby.”

While such advice is likely well-intentioned, it’s actually really unhelpful and can be damaging. It doesn’t allow the mom to figure out what works best for her and her baby, and it also undermines the way she is choosing to do it right now. It could lead a mom to think, Maybe she *shouldn’t* be nursing again. When the truth is, the mom knows her baby best, and every baby is different (and babies don’t just nurse for nutrition! but that’s a post for another day).

And guess what? She might make mistakes as a new mom: WE ALL DO. She needs support and kindness as she learns from these mistakes.

Here is another quote from Naomi Stadlen’s book, What Mothers Do: Especially When It Looks Like Nothing, that sums it up nicely:

“Rarely is it necessary to tell a mother what to do. It may demoralise her further, and certainly does not help her to learn. A mother needs to feel safe enough to risk feeling uncertain. People who offer advice cannot know all the details of her situation. They also don’t usually have to live with the long-term consequences of their advice. A mother needs time to ‘grow’ into parenthood, together with her partner. She needs enough confidence to experiment and change her mind a few times. She needs to learn that some of her ideas work. The most uncertain and under-confident beginner can gradually turn herself into a unique mother.

The miracle is that mothers manage to survive at all in such an expert-ridden climate. After lonely periods of confusion, they suddenly discover that they are starting to understand their babies. As their babies grow, so does their confidence.”

This is why it’s important for new moms to carefully consider who their caregivers are. They should know when to hold the space and be silent, rather than bombard her with advice, even if it’s well-intentioned.

When my son was about 18 months old, I felt like I was close to hitting rock bottom. I was a stress ball, crying a lot, so I went to see a counsellor. On paper, she sounded great and exactly what I was looking for.

After my first visit, I was frustrated because she had given me homework (make a list of things I could do on my own to “fill my cup”). I felt like this was just another thing on my to-do list, which was already lengthy, and I wasn’t really looking for ways to be away from my son.

However, I went ahead with it and went back to my follow-up appointment, even though I was in a much better head space. I didn’t go back after that, and here’s why:

She made a few statements that were bothersome to me. After I told her some background on my life, she commented, “It’s hard when you have a toddler breastfeeding at night and you’re wondering when they’re going to night wean.”

She went on to ask if I had considered night weaning, and that perhaps that would help us get more sleep. “I support breastfeeding but not if it’s interfering with sleep.” (Whenever a person qualifies a statement of support with the word ‘but,’ they don’t really support it. And I know if I stopped breastfeeding at night then or now, I’d get less sleep. See below.)

Finally, she asked me when I envisioned moving our son out of our family bed, remarking that children often have better sleep hygiene when they sleep alone.

There are a few problems with these statements. First, they make assumptions: I never said I had a problem with my son breastfeeding at night. I never said I wanted to night wean. I also never said that my husband or I had a problem with our family bed: in fact, I said the opposite, that we had talked about it from the beginning, checked in regularly, and we were fine with it.

The second problem with these statements is they are her opinions and not facts. Because sleep is developmental, if I were to stop breastfeeding my son at night, he would still need comfort, and I’d have to find another method. And because sleep is developmental, he will eventually sleep through the night in our bed or his own, when he is ready. And some nights he does! And because sleep is developmental, bottle feeding a baby doesn’t guarantee s/he will sleep through the night, either. Babies are not robots, they are individuals just like adults, who develop at their own pace.

The most important issue with these statements is they could undermine a woman’s confidence. She eventually said, “You know your baby best.” Too late: the damage is done, and the seeds of doubt are planted if a mother is already questioning her decisions. In addition to undermining her confidence, they could make a mom feel like she needs to justify her decisions to other people, which she absolutely shouldn’t have to.

Fortunately, I don’t doubt the decisions we’ve made. Had I seen this counsellor when my son was younger, I may have, and that’s a scary, sad thought.

What I would have liked to have heard is, “What kind of support do you need to feel better? I’m hear to listen. Tell me what’s hard. You are safe here.” And maybe I would have admitted that sometimes it’s really hard breastfeeding at night, but that deep down I think it’s worth it, and I just need to vent. Or maybe I feel lonely because I don’t have many friends whose toddlers breastfeed, so let’s brainstorm some places or ways I can meet other moms. Or maybe I just need to cry and say that sometimes it feels so hard and that nobody understands – even if I know that’s not true, maybe it’s how I feel in that moment, and once I am able to voice it in a safe space, I will feel better.

This is what I mean about silence. I didn’t want or need advice. I wanted to be heard and supported. That’s what all mothers want.

And then we want to be told, “It’s a hard job being a mom, and you’re doing great. Even if you make mistakes along the way, you’re still doing a great job. You are the best mom your baby could ever ask for.”

Stay tuned for part 2 on the importance of choosing the right caregiver.

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